“I don’t know” is an opportunity, not a shortcoming

“I don’t know” is an opportunity, not a shortcoming
December 30, 2022 Beth Nyland

As 2022 drew to a close, several of my friends announced that they were stepping away from social media, at least until January. To detox from the digital noise, they chose to disconnect.

Stepping away can be good practice for analog conversations, too. In tense situations, sometimes the best response is no response at all. Step 1: close mouth. Step 2: open ears. Listening brings you to a moment of decision for Step 3: maybe open mouth, possibly walk away.

In the words of Disney’s Thumper, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Smart organizations equip frontline employees to handle tense conversations:

  • Talking points for spokespeople facing relentless reporters
  • De-escalation scripts for customer service reps answering irate callers
  • A supervisor who can step in to take the rising heat

For moments when our impulses may feel less-than-nice, measures like these give us something to say.

But how is your organization preparing people for casual conversations?

Think of those frontline folks who interact with customers more often and more personally than any corporate strategist or decision maker. They’re the ones your customers see and recognize and trust as a voice of your company. They’re the ones with ample opportunity to speak up and suggest new options or offerings to your customers.

But are they?

Are your people engaging customers in conversation?

Jill and I are working with a Story Mode client to build conversational skills and confidence throughout the organization. Our mission is for everyone to connect in ways that deepen customer-company relationships. Not just the gregarious go-getters in sales and leadership, but the heads-down hard workers in support, service, technical, and analytical roles.

Before we start coaching and advising these employees, we ask: “What keeps you from speaking up with a customer?”

Here is the answer we get most often:

“I don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

It’s not that they don’t have anything nice to say; these people are afraid they won’t have anything at all to say. To put it bluntly, they’re afraid to look stupid.

No one knows everything.

If we refuse to speak up because the conversation might veer into unfamiliar territory, we’re in for a quiet, disconnected existence.

Instead, not knowing can be a reason for conversation.

Years ago, a smart manager convinced me that my ignorance could be an asset. I just had to admit what I don’t know, ask questions (especially the “dumb” ones everyone else is afraid to ask), demonstrate genuine curiosity, and listen like crazy.

That’s the best business advice I’ve ever received—to reframe ignorance as an asset, not a liability.

Let’s turn “I don’t know” into an opportunity.

We can reframe “I don’t know” in the same way. Not knowing isn’t a failure or a reason to avoid conversation. Not knowing is an opportunity to create, extend, and expand conversations.

Create conversations.

In business, “I don’t know” is not a shortcoming. It’s an opportunity to go get that missing information and then return with it. Don’t B.S. your way through a situation. Admit what you don’t know, go after it, and then follow up to share what you’ve learned.

Extend conversations.

Instead of thinking of “I don’t know” as the last word, add the phrase, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” You’re not stopping the conversation, you’re stretching it.

Will the delay frustrate you and your customer? Perhaps. So do pick the right amount of time and make the most of it—whether that means a brief hold, a call back that afternoon, or a follow-up next week. Live up to your promise, and you’ll build trust.

Expand conversations.

Not knowing gives you an opportunity to draw someone new into the discussion. “I don’t know, but So-And-So does.” This turns conversation into a team sport, where you have options for adding the new player. You could:

  • Connect the customer with So-And-So and step aside
  • Talk to So-And-So, learn what you didn’t know, and relay the information to the customer yourself
  • Bring So-And-So into the conversation to enlighten the customer and you at the same time

This is practical networking on the job. I especially like those last two options, because you get the customer’s question answered and grow your own knowledge—so next time you might get to say, “I know!”

As a gift to our organizations for this new year, let’s reframe “I don’t know.”

Here’s a cultural shift you can make in 2023: Give everyone in your organization permission to say, “I don’t know.” Not as a cop-out or escape clause, but as a way to stimulate, extend, and expand conversations.


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